What is a Traveling Nurse?

I get this question a lot, and I want to answer it, but part of me wants to first answer the question 'what is a nurse?' Many people have the image of nurses as angel-faced girls in white uniforms, offering sponge baths, and mouth-to-mouth, and something for the pain. That is not nursing--that is porn. A conversation I had on a hike recently with a nurse who has just about hit her one year mark as an RN sums up nursing a little better. We had been warned about mountain lions before we took off.

"I'm a psychiatric nurse," my friend said, flatly. "I'll happily deal with the mountain lions. It will be a break."

I chimed in with, "yea...you might be able to reason with a mountain lion." And off we went.

I learned about travel nursing when I started working as a nurse, and it sounded too good to be true. Essentially, you are hired on contract as a temporary worker in a hospital, are paid a salary, and provided corporate housing. Agencies all over the country work to match staffing needs with available nurses. In the hospital setting, travel nurses are known as agency or contract nurses, but most often we are just called travelers. Typically, a contract lasts 8-13 weeks, with the option of extending. An agency nurse decides on a place he or she would like to go, and a recruiter starts looking for contracts in the area. If your home state is part of one of the now 24 different compact states, and you plan to travel to another compact state, you do not have to apply for an additional RN license. If you are out of the compact, or traveling to a non-compact state, you will need to research what is involved in attaining a license for that state. Staffing contracts are usually formed 30-60 days out of a start date, but I personally have taken a contract on as short as a week's notice. Nurses who travel for strikes may leave in as short as 24 hours from the recruitment call. For specialty types of nursing--OR, critical care, neonatal, or labor and delivery, most hospitals require 2 years of experience, but there are available contracts for those who have only 1 year of experience. I traveled after a year of nursing experience and I'm often asked if I would recommend that to another nurse. My answer is that it's a highly individual decision. I certainly had a lot of nurses try to talk me out of traveling that early, but my mind was made up. In preparation for early travel, I deliberately took hard assignments. If there was a train-wreck of a patient on the floor, and I was working, then everyone knew she was mine. If a nurse intends to travel early, I'd definitely recommend a plan similar to this. Travelers are expected to hit the ground running and as a traveler you are perpetually "the new kid." There is zero coddling in contract nursing, and in fact, there's usually an unspoken hazing period that occurs at a new hospital. Nurses do have a reputation for eating their young, and while I've had a very good overall experience, I've certainly met up with "Brunhilda" the ancient, husky voiced, broad-shouldered RN with an insatiable appetite for young nurses. It takes a fair amount of confidence, flexibility, and possibly a little bit of mental instability to jump into this. In my opinion, it's well worth it.

There are two ways to work contractually. You can work as an independent contractor, which is a complete headache to do, but is almost twice the pay. Most travelers work through agencies, and hospitals are far quicker to post staffing needs, and to hire nurses from an agency. If this is the route a nurse chooses to go, I recommend working with several agencies. What those who are considering travel nursing do not know when they are starting off, is that when all is said and done they are signing a contract. Nowadays, when I hear the word contract the next word that comes to mind is negotiate . I know a fair amount of business-minded nurses, but generally most nurses just do not equate what they do with business of any kind. We go into nursing because we want to help, and fix, and heal and save. Nonsense like that. The strangest speech a nurse will ever hear is the speech she hears in orientation about "fiscal responsibility," and "business consideration." The industry of health care is very much a business, but I don't know any nurses that see it that way. Kind of makes me wonder what a screaming crack-head who is about to project a human from her crotch would look like on one of those grocery market conveyor belts, and how much she would ring up as when they scan her. Ding! $A lot.99.

So, negotiate. Travel nurses are expensive little suckers, but a good part of our huge expense comes from the pay the agency is receiving. I recently saw a featured contract in the bay area for $30 an hour for an OR nurse, and laughed my head off. That's a gross underpayment for an agency nurse in this area, especially for a nurse in a specialty. Everything is up for negotiation with an agency, the pay, your housing, and the time you need off. Nursing is crazy, contract nursing is nearly psychotic. It is way more risk, way more liability, way more work--therefore, it should be way more pay. Some agencies define "corporate housing" very different from others, and it's important to be clear about where they intend to house you right away. I was partial to the website www.allnurses.com for getting opinions on hospitals or local housing. I haven't used that site in years, but it was a good resource to me when I first started traveling. The other housing option is to take a living stipend, which is not taxable income, and ranges from $700-$2400 per month depending on which area in the country you are going. If you take a living stipend then you're on your own to find housing, either through a friend or some have even made use of Craigslist. As far as I know, the San Francisco Bay area pays the best in the country with its closest competitor being New York City. But then...you'd have to work in New York City. With New Yorkers. In an urban hospital. Can we get a round of applause for those people? Because good for them. Never tried that, and I'm way too soft for that now.

Logistics aside, travel nursing can be as romantic as it seems. You are constantly meeting new people, seeing new things, and having new experiences. Travelers are very, "what's next?" kind of people, and most I've met who travel in health care, in other industries, or for recreation find that the more you see, the more you realize you haven't seen. Traveling is the epitome of freedom in health care, and there are options to travel as an RN overseas as well. The most interesting contract I was ever offered was on a reservation, and I declined because it was a one-year commitment. I sometimes wonder if I should have done it anyway, and I can't say I wouldn't be tempted if I was called again for it. My own experience in travel nursing meant helping with the deliveries of everyone from diplomats to the homeless. I became a staff nurse in February of this year, because I love where I live, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never wanted to take another contract. Before my staff position, I did a count of the hospitals and realized that by age 29 I'd worked in 17 different hospitals across the country. If that sounds crazy, it's because it is crazy. But I was so busy--l just didn't even notice. I suppose I was soul-searching in all of that as well--and I did eat, I did pray, and I did love. It was great.

Waiting for When

Comments 27 comments

Jeff - Travel Nursing Blogs Guy 6 years ago

Great overview. Thanks. Why did you stop traveling?

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Hi, Jeff! Good question...are you about to try and recruit me? ;-). Well, as a traveler you are a bit of a "roadie" and that gets tiring. Of course, after a little rest, I wanted to go right back. Can't say it's completely out of my system, but if I never take a contract again, I'll never forget what I got to do in traveling.

Part of the reason I stopped traveling is because of the sudden plummet in contracts in late 2008 through most of 2009. With people losing their jobs, (and insurance), hospitals made major cutbacks in labor, and contract workers were the first to be cut. Logically, we were the most expensive...and dispensable. I suspect you know that already. I decided to play it safe for once and take a staff job, (easiest thing ever, they knew me, and didn't need to interview me), in the bay as I've taken quite a few contracts here, but I knew about a month in, that I wasn't going to keep at it. I'm not one for the BS politics of the hospital, I just want to take care of patients and go home. That's why I loved travel nursing.

always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

Your story is very interesting. I knew some nurses who chose to travel and they loved it, plus they made a lot more money. I guess i wanted a safe, familiar, atmosphere, but i know i missed seeing a lot. I missed seeing you on hubpages.


ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Hi Ruby! Travel nursing IS NOT for everyone! I go to suggest it, because I loved it so much, but there are a lot of glitches sometimes. I left a lot out. I can tell these stories until I die, but it was the right move for me personally. Nursing is crazy enough, you certainly don't need to supplement the crazy by constantly changing your environment. I rolled the dice a lot. I was always very committed to patient care, and stayed current. I went to conferences, I read journals, and I did not take chances with people's lives. If a person wants to travel they need to do the exact same thing.

Great hearing from you, Ruby! And I wish I had more time to do this, it's fun! But I'm always up to something. :-).

bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

Well,Ill be. I just did not realize the scope of the profession. I think you are entirely wise to do that while you are young. Thus you won't ever have to look back and say ,I settled down too young." Too many of us did that.Too many.

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Jackie. I tend to break the rules. I grew up in a town where girls were supposed to marry young, and locally, and start having babies. That sounded to me remarkably like...a hostage situation. :-). My dad believed that life had too many variables for a woman not to be able to take care of herself, so I was parented the same way the boys were. However, I do think I'm a little more than he bargained for...poor guy. I was in no way ready to be married in my early twenties. I sort of knew it then, I know that exponentially now. But I have to say, that through these years of travel, and through all this crazy I have not discovered anything more important than God and the people I love. There is nothing I wouldn't sacrifice for either. And your obvious zeal for God and family--maybe you knew this sort of truth all along in your own life.

cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 6 years ago from northeastern US

good getting to know you better. docs have the same option, called locum tenens. never did it. i'm more of a homebody.

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Cathy, wow, I didn't know docs could travel! I wonder how many know that. I don't think my current docs at the hospital know that. Nothing wrong with being a homebody, it's relaxing. I'm at hubpcamp right now and lost. Probably because I'm not listening. Thanks for reading!

kkgifts profile image

kkgifts 6 years ago from Florence, SC


I am an RN too loved this hub, reaad my economic burn out- our new reality , see what has happeded to me. I really wish i could have had your experiences. I love working the floor. Now all I can get are manageral type jobs. I don't want that any more I want the floor. Hope you continue to have good experiences!!

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Thanks, KKgifts. I'm going to read your hub right now. And good for you for managing, I couldn't be paid enough to do that. I went into this for what you did, bedside nursing. Thanks for reading!

2besure profile image

2besure 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

They used to call them visiting nurses. They make pretty good money for a short visit too.

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Thanks for reading 2besure. It has worked out well for me, and I learned a lot.

Tara Harkins 6 years ago

Thanks for the great hub! I'm still in nursing school, but I'm considering becoming a traveling nurse when I'm done just because I love to travel. How many years of experience should I get before I try to become one?

Jo Deslaurier profile image

Jo Deslaurier 6 years ago

Great hub, I had a friend who became a traveling nurse and I never fully understood all the work her job entailed. Thanks for enlghtening all of us =)

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Tara, sorry, I missed your message because it was marked as spam. Email me! I'll tell you whatever you want to know. Jo, thanks for reading, and I've had a really fun experience. I sometimes wonder if I'm all done having it yet. ;-).

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hi, I was also wondering if you had settled in one hospital, it sounds fun, hectic, exhausting and very worthwhile! in England the nurses are called agency nurses, I knew that they travelled but I didn't realise how far! good luck in the future, and I hope that you find the exact balance between staying in one place and travelling, cheers nell

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Hi, Nell! Haha! I almost worked in England because I'd get paid in pounds which converts to twice the American dollar, but my life went in a different direction. A series of unusual, dramatic events lead to my returning to California this time, living in an area I'd never even visited when I came to CA about 5 years ago. Settled is a strong word, but I work on staff at a hospital I'd worked years ago. The manager heard I was back "in town" and made me an offer I really couldn't refuse. I actually commute to that hospital, and I do not commute. I'm not one to ever say never but while I think my adventures are far from over, my adventures as a traveling nurse are likely finished. I felt the shift a year ago--no longer had the urge to flee, and I love the people in my daily life to the point of panic. Two years ago, my best friend, knowing the insanity that lead me here, said that I was definitely lead back to California for a reason. What I do know is that travel nursing put me in a stupidly right place for the business we started, and it's hard to call it a coincidence. I saw your other comment, and thanks. Really, the funerals this year were sad, but my year was very happy. Cheers back, Shannon.

Mandy Harrison 6 years ago

Hey your story was great!! Im an up-coming nurse. I want to travel too!! I know I need a lot of experience and I will take your advice into consideration!!!

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Mandy! I'm on my way to teach today, and it's reminding me of being a student and learning labor and delivery, congrats, in advance btw! I'd advise to try and travel with a smaller company if possible when you're ready. Their overhead is less and they tend to pay more. I won't make any friends for saying that...but who cares, I have too many as it is, really ;-). A nurse was telling me about her international travel assignment and THAT sounded awesome! Email me if I can help!

katiem2 profile image

katiem2 6 years ago from I'm outta here

What a cool story. I had no idea, I look forward to reading more of your work. Love the traveling nurse. :) Katie

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Katie, I loved being a traveling nurse. I am no longer one, and I'm not sure I'll ever be working as a nurse on a contract again, but I learned a lot about a lot of things--people, medicine, myself, to name a few things. It was a wonderful thing.

KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

ahostagesituation, you have made a hardworking profession sound sort of adventerous. As a recruiter of nurses you would go far. Unfortunately burn-out is a ral thing among professions such as that. You give so mush of yourself you can end up feeling as though there's not much left for yourself. I applaud all nurses everywhere, their jobs are not easy.

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 5 years ago Author

Hi, KKG! Well, I wish I had a heartwarming reason for becoming a nurse, but I really don't. When I decided to be a nurse I was a student, an artist, and a waitress...not a fun way to pay bills. I became interested in nursing again from an ad in the paper with some crazy sign-on bonus. (Fine print of bonus--we will make you hate life so much that no amount of money will help you recover). I actually didn't think I was smart enough to be a nurse, but one of my waitress friends had started studying to be one, and she was a complete bobble head. I figured if she could do it, I could do it. She stopped studying one day and I continued.

Burn out is real, it happens a lot, but traveling actually helped. I took breaks between contracts. The emotional drain of nursing can not be put into words, or salary, or benefits etc. I can tell when it's time for me to take a break these days, and I do. I have a very strong spiritual base which was the mainstay in my sanity. One of the issues with nursing not being easy is that "mean girl" aspect indigenous to any situation that involves too many women in one place. I've had no real problems thusfar, I tend to get a long with people. But I know very well how cliquish, high-school, and downright mean nurses can be to other nurses. When I had a new nurse tell me once that I was in the "in crowd" I took an "OH HELL NO!" approach to that perspective. I never want to be linked with some of the bullying I see. It sucks. We as nurses need to work on it as an entire field.

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

A friend's daughter (who's name was also Shannon!) was a neo-natal traveler for several years and loved it. Made what her mom and I considered an obscene amount of $$ for a "temp". Must've been using corporate housing, as all she ever had to move was her clothes, computer, and TV. Went into it to be able to try out different parts of the country. Decided she liked Albuquerque, married The Boy From Back Home, and is still nursing. Sounds like a great profession if you don't mind turning your life upside down every few months, not to mention it's a way to actually nurse while staying out of hospital politics!

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 5 years ago Author

Yeah, I made so much money on some of the contracts I didn't want to tell my parents because they'd definitely want me to find better ways to spend it then travel, but that's what I did. No regrets. I don't think travel nursing is still like it was even 2 years ago, with the economy, but I do get calls from travel recruiters about everyday. I know they couldn't match what I make now though, that's for darn sure. I'm happy to have done travel nursing, there's no way I would be the nurse I am today. I wouldn't have learned as much, I wouldn't have the confidence I have as a nurse. But I am MORE than happy to pass on what I know to new grads and other nurses, and keep it moving. "Play it forward, kids. Mommy has a business to run." ;-). I'm taking a year off.

hafeezrm profile image

hafeezrm 5 years ago from Pakistan

Nice and informative hub with 'terms' new to me. Thanks.

ahostagesituation profile image

ahostagesituation 5 years ago Author

Hafeezrm, thank you so much for reading, and please forgive my delay in response, I'm just getting back to writing. Thank you again, and glad you got some information out of it.

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